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Discovery arrives at space station

Last updated 2:53 p.m. ET

The shuttle Discovery glided to a picture-perfect docking with the International Space Station Saturday - the veteran spaceplane's 13th and final linkup with the orbiting outpost.

With commander Steven Lindsey manually flying Discovery from the aft flight deck, the shuttle's payload bay docking system engaged its counterpart on the front end of the station's Harmony module at 2:14 p.m. EST (GMT-5), reports CBS News space consultant William Harwood.

"Station and Houston, Discovery has capture confirmed," an astronaut radioed.

The historic linkup marked the first time in the station's 12-year history that spacecraft from the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and Japan were docked at the outpost at the same time.

Final launch of Space Shuttle Discovery
CBS News' Space Place (Harwood blog)
NASA's Space Shuttle Mission Home Page

Later in the mission, if all goes well and mission managers concur, three station crew members will undock in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to photograph the lab complex and all the visiting vehicles from afar, capturing a unique moment that, with the shuttle's looming retirement, will never be repeated.

But first, the combined crews have to accomplish the primary objectives of Discovery's mission, including attachment of a final U.S. module, loaded with critical supplies and equipment, and an external storage platform carrying a spare set of radiator panels.

A few minutes after 1 p.m., Lindsey and pilot Eric Boe brought Discovery to a halt about 600 feet directly below the space station. At that point, Lindsey conducted a computer-assisted 360-degree back-flip maneuver, exposing the shuttle's belly and critical heat-shield tiles to the crew aboard the station.

Expedition 26 flight engineers Catherine "Cady" Coleman and Paolo Nespoli filmed the maneuver, using 400 mm and 800 mm telephoto lenses respectively, to capture high-resolution photographs of Discovery's heat shield tiles. The images will be downlinked to analysts in mission control at the Johnson Space Center for detailed evaluation.

During Discovery's launching Thursday, several pieces of foam insulation fell away from the ship's external tank, including some that appeared to contact the shuttle's heat shield. The foam shedding occurred well after the first two minutes and 15 seconds of flight when the dense lower atmosphere can cause debris to hit with a high relative velocity.Engineers do not believe the foam lost Thursday caused any significant damage, but the photos shot during final approach Saturday will be carefully scrutinized to make sure, and to look for anything else that might need attention.

After the rendezvous pitch maneuver, Lindsey carefully guided Discovery to a docking at pressurize mating adapter No. 2 on the front end of the station's Harmony module. It was Discovery's 13th and final docking with the International Space Station.

If all goes well, hatches between Discovery and the station will be opened shortly after 3:30 p.m. and Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, Oleg Skripochka, Dmitry Kondratyev, Catherine Coleman and Paolo Nespoli will welcome Lindsey and his shuttle crewmates - pilot Eric Boe, Al Drew, Stephen Bowen, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott - into the space station.

After a mandatory safety briefing, the shuttle astronauts will get to work transferring spacesuits and other gear to the station. Barratt and Stott, operating the station's robot arm, plan to pull a cargo pallet out of Discovery's cargo bay just before 5 p.m. The pallet, known as external logistics carrier No. 4, is loaded with a spare set of radiator panels for the station's ammonia cooling system.

ELC-4 will be mounted on the underside of the station's right-side solar power truss. To get it there, Barratt and Stott will hand it off to the shuttle's robot arm, operated by Boe and Drew. The station arm then will be repositioned, inchworm fashion, moving from the Harmony module to its mobile base work station. When the move is complete, the shuttle arm will hand ELC-4 back to the station arm and the pallet will be mounted on the solar power truss for future use as needed.

A mission status briefing is planned for 4:30 p.m. The crew will go to bed shortly before 11 p.m.

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